• Introduction
  • What is acceleration in sports exactly?
  • Athletes need to overcome inertia
  • Different phases of acceleration in sports
  • Benefits of acceleration in sports
  • Here’s how you train for acceleration in sports
  • Final thoughts
  • Sources


Speed is one of the biggest factors that set athletes apart in modern sports. But, contrary to popular beliefs, maximum speed is usually not the skill that sets athletes apart during competition. This is due to the fact that reaching your top speed takes a relatively long time (around 6-7s), which means that you’ll rarely face these situations during in-game scenarios. In fact, the average sprint distance in field sports is only 10-20m and only lasts two to three seconds. With this in mind, the most important factor is how quickly you are able to accelerate, decelerate, stop and change direction to throw off your competition.

While acceleration and speed are often used interchangeably, it is important to understand their fundamental differences in order to train them accordingly. This article explains the basic mechanics of acceleration in sports and why it is so important for athletic performance. You can also go straight to our acceleration training post to learn how to create your own training program. There are also some free samples to get you started!

What is acceleration in sports exactly?

Acceleration describes how quickly you can increase your velocity towards maximum speed. However, since acceleration refers to velocity, it is a vector quantity and therefore has a direction and magnitude. In a sports context, this means a change in the magnitude or direction of the motion or both. For example, sprinting requires you to accelerate horizontally whereas jumping relies on vertical acceleration. Thus, every time an athlete changes speed or direction can be considered acceleration in sports.

If you want to look at acceleration from a scientific standpoint, we can refresh our memories with a simple lesson in physics:


Velocity / Time

In short, acceleration describes a change in velocity over a given time frame. It is also often misunderstood among sports journalists, who only mention acceleration when athletes are moving fast. In fact, acceleration has nothing to do with being fast or slow – it merely describes an object’s change in velocity. You can even be already moving with constant velocity and not be accelerating. Thus, even changing from walking to a slow jog is considered acceleration in sports.

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Acceleration refers to a change in velocity. It also always has a direction and a magnitude.

Athletes need to overcome inertia

When an athlete is accelerating, they are fighting against inertia. This simple rule of physics means that any object with a mass tends to resist change in velocity or direction. In short, an object wants to continue moving in a straight line with constant speed. Thus, an athlete must use quite a bit of strength to fight against the forces of gravity in order to overcome inertia and gain momentum.

As far as performance goes, the time it takes to accelerate to your maximum speed can also be misleading. This is due to the fact that the lower your top speed is, the quicker you’ll be able to reach it. Thus, an average middle-aged person might even reach their top speed faster than a world-class sprinter. However, an elite-level athlete is able to accelerate for a longer time and reach higher speeds.

Here’s an example:

In his world record run, Usain Bolt reached his top speed at around 60m while his competitors reached maximum velocity closer to the 50m mark. This means that Bolt was able to reach his top speed in around 6.5s – a full second later than his competitors. However, since his top speed was faster than anyone else’s, he was able to accelerate even further. Thus, even though Bolt’s acceleration took longer, he became the fastest athlete alive.

Different phases of acceleration in sports

Acceleration can be divided into two distinct phases; initiation phase, also known as pure acceleration or drive phase and transition acceleration phase.

Initiation acceleration phase describes the first few seconds of acceleration where the athlete’s speed is still relatively low. During this pure acceleration phase, the athlete must propel themselves forward and gain speed as quickly as possible. Additionally, since the starting velocity is often very low, the athlete has the capacity to significantly increase their speed.

Transition acceleration phase refers to the plateau where the athlete comes closer to maximum speed and therefore unable to accelerate much further. Thus, as the distance gets longer, your ability to accelerate more decreases.

However, since most field-sport athletes rarely sprint for more than 2-3s, your focus should therefore be on improving your initial acceleration. On the other hand, if your sport requires you to run a straight line for a longer time, you should also train at the transition acceleration phase as well.

The goal of acceleration is to reach maximum speed as quickly as possible. But, most sports don't have enough time to reach it.

Why do some athletes have better acceleration than others?

The physiological factors of acceleration in sports are still somewhat unknown. However, since acceleration requires producing as much force in an as short amount of time as possible, it is strongly related to your power attributes. This also leads to the assumption that a higher number of fast-twitch muscle fibers (type IIa & type IIb/IIx) may be beneficial for your acceleration ability. This means that your muscles are able to produce more power in less time but also burn out faster when compared to slow-twitch muscle fibers (type I).

There are also some mechanical factors in your technique, such as running cadence (stride frequency)stride length and contact time also have a tremendous impact on your acceleration. These also transfer well into swimming techniques where stroke rate, stroke length, and glide are three of the most important technical factors in performance.

"The better your technique and coordination is, the better you will be able to use your power to be more explosive." 

Technique is a vital component in acceleration. The reason for this is that no matter how much brute force you can produce, it is useless if you waste your energy on inefficient muscle work.

Running cadence is the rate of which each step can be reproduced. During the initial acceleration phase your step frequency is quite long but as your speed increases, so does your stride rate! The key to faster acceleration and higher top speed is to improve both step frequency and stride rate.

Stride length describes how long each step is during a sprint. As you start accelerating, your steps are powerful yet somewhat short. However, as your speed increases your stride length will also become longer. And, if you are able to cover a longer distance with a single step, you can improve your acceleration and top speed for better performance.

Contact time refers to the time your feet spend on the ground during each step. When you start accelerating, your contact times range from 0.12 to 0.2 seconds. While this may seem long in a sprint context, this added time allows you to produce more power during the initial acceleration. Once you’ve gathered some speed these contact times will become shorter as you reach your maximum speed. And, since you spend most of your time in the air during a sprint, it is easy to see why reduced contact times can improve your performance. This is also known as ground force efficiency.

Benefits of acceleration in sports

Acceleration is a crucial component in athletic performance especially in field sports where speed and direction change often and sometimes very suddenly. In fact, reaching a high speed in a very short time or distance can be one of the most useful skillsets in an athlete’s arsenal. Since acceleration is needed in situations where your speed changes rapidly, it is also heavily related to your agility. Therefore it is easy to see why athletes should put more focus on training acceleration instead of just pure maximum speed.

While acceleration and agility go hand in hand, they are also strongly related to your power capabilities. The reason behind this is that your body must be able to produce as much force in an as short amount of time as possible. In short, being more explosive on the field will give you that extra boost on the field to stand out from everyone else. This especially leaves your opponents with less time to react to your moves and you will be able to reach your top speed sooner.

And what sport doesn’t benefit from that?

Acceleration is a combination of three factors; strength, power and technique.

Here’s how you train for acceleration in sports

Acceleration consists of three main factors; strength, power and technique. In a way, acceleration combines your explosiveness and power attributes with sports-specific skills for the ultimate performance. Therefore, all three must also be incorporated into your training routine if you want to improve your acceleration. There are even signs that speed training has speed-specific effects on your neuromuscular system (muscles and their connecting nerves). This means that your body gets used to working at a certain speed and intensity. This also means that you have to be sports-specific in your training and maintain optimal movement patterns and good technique – especially when working with heavier loads.

"Speed training has speed-specific effects on your neuromuscular system. This means that your body gets used to working at a certain speed and intensity."

The best way to train for acceleration is to perform explosive full-body exercises that utilize multiple joints during physical performance. These are also known as compound exercises and they provide a great foundation for a plethora of activities. They often consist of explosive exercises such as jump squats, cleans and power cleans with medium-to-high resistance (much like power training). Other effective training methods include short (0-5s) high-intensity sprints (especially with a sled or other resistance) and plyometric exercises (explosive jumps, leaps etc.). All of these exercises not only increase your power skillset but also improve your technique.

Acceleration can also be trained through maximum speed training. The theory behind this is that higher speed training will eventually improve your technique at a slower speed as well. Thus, much like strength training and its effect on endurance, high-speed training should also improve performance at submaximal (below your maximum) intensity.

We’ve also created an in-depth post about acceleration training packed with all the information you need. If you want to learn how to create your own workout program or take a look at our selection of free samples, feel free to click the button below.

Final thoughts

As we’ve learned in this article, acceleration is one of the most important performance factors in sport and athletic ability. The sheer fact of being able and make quick changes in direction, decelerate and accelerate back to your top speed are vital attributes for nearly all sports out there. In fact, the faster you are able to build up speed, the more likely you are to get past defenders or break some ankles on the court. And what’s better than being on the highlight reel?

From a coaching standpoint, measuring the changes in velocity can also tell you valuable information about the performance of an athlete and how to improve it the best way possible. So, if you are serious about being at the top of the food chain, you need to assess your acceleration capabilities and incorporate sports-specific exercises into your training routine – and do it the right way.

Remember, training is not the only thing you need to maintain athletic development. You also need plenty of rest and proper nutrition if you want to stay healthy and become a better athlete. But before you leave and go back to training, here’s a quick recap of the benefits of acceleration in sports:

  • Quicker force production and increased power
  • Faster acceleration & deceleration
  • Quicker changes in direction
  • Improved agility
  • Useful in every sport imaginable

Did you learn anything new about acceleration in sport? Let us know in the comments.


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